By Miranda Phillips

With artic ice melting at great speed, and climate disruption happening a hundred years sooner than expected, climate change is promising to be the biggest challenge of the 21st century.  Not often talked about, at least in mainstream media, are the psychological and spiritual aspects of this challenge – among them, fear, guilt, and grief that make it difficult for us to act and act fast.

 At a recent local conference (, a panel of practitioners from various psycho-spiritual disciplines — religion, philosophy and group therapy — shared wisdom as to how we might deal wisely with such difficult mind states, and move past these to action.  As the panel moderator, I’d like to summarize that discussion, and (as requested by conference participants) continue it in several ways: share thoughts about my own field, mindfulness practice, as a support to climate action; offer take-home points from all of the above disciplines; and invite dialogue on any aspect of this topic.

To start, I’d like to try to identify — what are these psychological and spiritual challenges surrounding climate change? 

Last month, I read a thoughtful exploration of this in Technology Review — a synopsis of several recent books asking: why has our response to climate change been so weak here in the US?  These authors agreed that one reason, if not the main reason, for our inaction is that climate change involves tough moral issues that no one wants to address.  One such moral issue is “climate injustice”: the fact that we in the Western world, with our heavy use of cars and our large houses, are responsible for the bulk of climate change; ironically, the parties most hurt by this are the groups least responsible — people in the developing world, other animal species, and future generations. 

Clearly we must stop this terrible harm we are causing.  But we are getting stuck in various ways. 

Firstly, say these authors, we resist change because it requires sacrifice on our part.  To be sure, some change will be pleasant. (For example, eating locally — which is better for the planet — can be an improvement for us, too: a local tomato certainly tastes better than one commercially grown, and keeps money local, too).  But slowing climate change is necessarily also going to involve some sacrifice: at the very least in the form of changing routine which is always uncomfortable, though in the long run we will likely find the new routines to be equally satisfying if not more so.  In the short run it will be hard to accept less driving, less convenience; less money in our pockets, perhaps (that local tomato, if we don’t grow it ourselves, may cost us a good bit more).  We may also find less time for certain things, if we’re to carve out a chunk of our time instead for staying informed, learning to change the way we live and to advocate wisely for policy change.

Another impediment to change is distraction: we all have busy lives and urgent projects to attend to. It’s hard to remember in the midst of other pressing issues that climate change, which can feel a ways off, is actually urgent and requires our attention now.   (As I heard it put recently: “Americans are good at dealing with the wolf at the door, not the termites in the basement”).

A third impediment to action is emotional pain:  if we acknowledge the enormity of the harm we are causing – to the planet and its inhabitants – we may feel grief, guilt, fear.   We may find ourselves paralyzed by these and unable to take necessary action.  I am particularly interested in this issue since my field, mindfulness practice, is concerned with exactly this: how to attend to difficult mind states and move through them to wise action?

And so the article left me wondering: What can motivate people to act, even knowing it will involve sacrifice?  What can help us to remember to act, even in the midst of so much distraction?  And how might we tend to grief and other uncomfortable feelings along the way?

A week later, I got to explore these questions as the moderator of a panel of professionals from various psycho-spiritual disciplines: religion, philosophy and group therapy.  These included Reverend Kenneth Clarke (of Cornell’s United Religious Works); Dr. Jalaja Bonheim, of the Institute for Circlework; and Dr. Andrew Fitz-Gibbon (Chair of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Cortland). 

Reverend Clarke spoke to my question of motivation. What might move people to act even at cost to themselves?  He argued that a trusted leader could be a powerful force to convince people that action, however difficult, is necessary.  He told of an emerging leader, Katherine Hayhoe — an evangelical and a climate scientist — who has become such a trusted motivational speaker for her evangelical community.

The minister also spoke of hope as a key motivator.  He quoted Martin Luther King saying, “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice”.  The power of this quote, I think, is that it does two things: acknowledges the great difficulty of the road ahead, but in the same breath offers hope that in the end, hardship will be for the good.  He offered as an example the role that faith played in sustaining the civil rights movement.  This speaks also to my own experience: at the climate conference (Climate Smart & Climate Ready), of which this panel discussion was a part, participants were motivated and reassured by a message of hope from its keynote speaker, Mark Hertzgaard, an environmental journalist who has covered climate change for the last 15 years: “I don’t know if we will win the climate fight, but I know that we can.”  We can!  Action would not be in vain.  What a relief to hear — wind for our sails.

The philosopher on the panel argued that feelings – compassion and love in particular — are perhaps the most effective motivators of action.  He suggested that when we feel love for something or someone being harmed, we cannot help but act to protect it, even at cost to ourselves.  The conference keynote made this same point: though he had been reporting on climate change for 15 years, it was only after becoming a parent that he took action — to protect the daughter that he cares about more than anything else.  This relates to my own experience as well: after the conference, I came home with a list of steps I intended to take in the coming weeks and months.  But it was when I woke up the next morning with this realization, “My God, I live in a flood plain!” that I viscerally felt the urgency of acting, protecting my family, my neighborhood, and the house and garden I’ve worked so lovingly to develop.  “I must call the town planning board tonight,” I thought, to see what plans they might have (levees around the creek perhaps?) in my own neighborhood.  I felt prepared to pay handsomely for such construction.

The group therapist, Dr. Jalaja Bonheim, spoke to my question of emotional pain: how to address feelings like grief and fear that might be stopping us from action?  She spoke of a format she uses called Circlework in which participants are safely able to become aware of and resolve feelings around tough issues.  She works with Jewish and Palestinian women, for example, to help heal wounds and enable these women to move forward and become agents of peace in their communities.  The therapist didn’t explain exactly how she’s able to help people discover and share their emotional truths, but she spoke of the healing power of this process and its ability to give new energy to activists.  She shared an anecdote about one such activist who said, “All these years I thought I was fighting the good fight; turns out I was just fighting my own fear.  No wonder I’m exhausted”. By acknowledging her fear in a Circlework context, she was able to stop fighting it and get her energy back instead for action.

To recap – my colleagues in other fields offered valuable answers to my questions: trusted leaders, hope and compassion all have great power to motivate us, even at cost to ourselves.  Therapy can enable action, too, helping us learn to recognize and share difficult emotions, and in sharing, become newly energized to act.

Here, I’d like to add my own thoughts as a teacher of another psycho-spiritual discipline, mindfulness practice, also a powerful tool to enable action.  Like group therapy, it is a process of learning to recognize difficult emotional truths and move through these to action.  It begins with learning to notice.  Just notice.  In formal meditation sessions, we practice becoming aware of some aspect of experience — say, sensations in the body.  In a typical exercise, one might scan the body, registering any sensation in toes, ankles, and so on.  Focus inevitably strays.  But, we learn, this too is something simply to notice and accept: Distraction.  (Fine, natural).  Now what?  Come back to focus: calves, knees…

As one gets better at focusing on bodily sensations, one can progress to harder things: emotions.  The practice is to notice in each moment, what am I feeling? and to sit with that feeling, without judging it.  Noticing something like fear, for instance, and simply accepting it:  Not good, not bad, just true.

From here, we advance to a yet harder task: noticing and accepting such feelings throughout the day.  Formal practice continues (maybe half an hour daily).  But the bulk of the practice happens informally – that is to say, while going about one’s life.  For me as a mother of a baby, this has meant learning to notice and deal wisely under various kinds of stress.  I think particularly of one vivid instance of this: when my five-month-old son grabs a fistful of my hair.   Half the time, I must admit, I react from instinct: “No, Will, NO!”  And I grab his little hand.  But more and more often my mindful mind gets there first.  “Notice,” it says. “Pain, anger.” Often times, this noticing is enough to make the pain and anger go away.  It also interrupts the process before anger leads to something yet more upsetting.  It puts space between the match and the fuse.  In that space there is instead room to choose: how will I respond? What would be wise?  And I gently unhook his hand, and find a rubber band for my hair. 

In retrospect, it may seem obvious that this was the right course of action.  But the same process has helped me notice and work through larger and more complicated fears:  “Get active on climate?  I know it’s needed, but… What exactly will I have to do?  How much time will it take?  I’m already overextended.  Also, why me?  I don’t know enough to be of help!  And anyway how could I possibly succeed, if the government (the biggest player in the game) isn’t doing anything?” 

How do we get ourselves to overcome such resistance?  By learning to notice and name what is happening: finger pointing, catastrophizing.  Fear.  Naming this way opens up the possibility for something else to happen.  For in naming, we wake up the part of the brain that likes understand, investigate, inquire:  Why this fear?  What exactly am I afraid of? Overstretch.  Government inaction.  Climate change.   Do these things deserve further attention?  Yes.  When?  Urgently.  Who should address them?  Me.  Me?  (Here the arguing may resume):  But GOVERNMENT must do something!  But they’re not, the mindful mind gently reminds me.  But they must!  But they’re not.  They’re not.  And so therefore, I must.  In the face of this bare truth, fear loses its reign over me, and there is space instead to consider: What might I do?  What is already being done? Who might I work with?  And how can we avoid doing further harm in the process?  Freed from the grip of strong emotion it becomes possible and instinctive to reflect so.  In this way, mindfulness can enable us not only to act, but to do so deliberately, wisely. 

In sum, in my experience, the benefits of mindfulness are many and key:

  1. As I just described, mindfulness gives practice with truth telling – in particular, acknowledging and accepting the unpleasant.  This speaks to the question, how are we to take climate action even though we fear that it will mean sacrifices we can’t handle?  The practice is to notice: fear, OK.  When we name and accept difficult feelings this way, we loosen their grip on us and can instead consider and choose: what would be a wise next step?  
  1. Mindfulness also cultivates compassion: in learning to notice our own suffering (fear, grief), we get better at noticing others’.  As discussed earlier, when we do notice suffering (say, of earth and its most vulnerable inhabitants) this can be a powerful motivator to act on their behalf.  Additionally and vitally, developing the muscle of compassion can be an aid to climate action also insofar as it may help us to learn to work with others — those in the federal government, for example — who we’ve been seeing as part of the problem.  By recognizing our own suffering, we learn to recognize and accept it as human.  This opens up the possibility for seeing that our “foes” are feeling stuck in their own ways; that this is natural.  It can allow for the possibility of working together, or at the very least, getting free from our antagonism and putting that energy instead into serving the larger intention: climate action. 
  1. Here, mindfulness is again key, for it is the practice of remembering one’s intentions.  This speaks to my question as to how we might keep focused on climate in the midst of many competing demands on our attention. We must tend to other needs (going to work, feeding ourselves) but keep climate action, too, as an urgent priority.

I love that mindfulness does all these things.  I’m amazed, frankly.  And, as it is a practice that one can do alone, anywhere, anytime, I see mindfulness as a complement to the kinds of support one finds at a conference, ethics class, religious prayer service or therapy session.  It provides support for when you’ve returned from these, all juiced for action, and find that the devil is in the details, and here you are stuck again.  It helps one find patience when progress is slower expected; helps one be patient, kind, and collaborative, when working with others to decide just what action everyone can agree to take together.  It is also a powerful tool for remaining active: working through the unpleasant, returning to intention and to action.

In learning about climate change people often ask, what can I do to help?  Given the above learnings, from my own and other disciplines, as to what we can do to motivate and sustain climate action, I’d like to suggest:

  1. Find a trusted source and stay informed:  For me, has been a wonderful resource, not just for information but also action suggestions.  Many of these actions are quick and easy, but also key; in my experience, the organizers of are knowledgeable and thoughtful, and I trust it is worth my five minutes to act as they suggest.  And, as represents a worldwide community of people concerned about climate change, it’s very empowering and heartening to be involved with them: when the organizers encouraged their members to march on Washington last February and ask Obama to nix the Keystone XL pipeline, 40,000 people showed up.
  2. Find a positive montra to keep you hopeful and put it somewhere prominent: “I don’t know if we will rise to the challenge of climate change, but I know we can” (Mark Hertzgaard).
  3. Find out what your state and region need to do to adapt to climate change:  Here in New York, a report (called ClimAID) explains this well, region by region.  Find out whether your state has such information, and if not, ask for it to be studied.  Then get active in your city, your neighborhood, your own garden — in whatever ways you can best contribute.
  4. Get active also at the most local level – internally:  Develop a spiritual practice. Do this to motivate and sustain you.  (As the philosopher panelist remarked, “I have known many activists, the only ones who did not burn out are the ones who had a practice of some kind”).  Do it also to guide you to act thoughtfully.  I have found mindfulness to be invaluable in both these ways.  If mindfulness is not for you, find another practice.  That is to say: develop touchstones to remind you what constitutes wise action: serving earth, but humans, too, and among them, the most vulnerable.  Such principles abound in religious tradition.  In secular traditions, too.  Permaculture, for example, a practice of sustainable design for landscapes, offers this montra: “Earth care, fair share, self care”, to make sure that each design meets a variety of equally important needs.  Such principles are key if we are to avoid doing each other yet more damage as we get to work, under stressful circumstances.
  5. Find a community (or at least a few friends) to support your practice: It is very difficult to hold to our principles alone.  Religious or secular, we need others to help us keep our intentions. 

In sum, regular spiritual and communal support is key if, as we must, we are to act – quickly, sustainably and wisely.